Sunday, December 4, 2016

Reclaiming Repentance

December 4, 2016 – The 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Last Sunday, a friend of mine from New York reintroduced Rite I to his parish for the first time in decades. He is relatively new there as the rector and decided to try something different during the season of Advent. He was worried that it might be “too much change,” but he reported on Facebook that the ladies in his midweek Bible study are lobbying him to make it a permanent change. Imagine that: a congregation going back to the outdated, old-fashioned, thoroughly unmodern language and theology of the sixteenth century…by choice!

He isn’t going to make it a permanent change, and don’t worry: I’m not planning on doing anything like that at St. John’s. But I do think that it’s interesting to consider why anyone would want to stumble over the “thees” and “thous,” which many of us were thankful to leave behind when the “new” prayer book came out in the late 1970s, and why anyone would enjoy saying and hearing prayers that seem to reiterate how miserably sinful all of us are. As much as I like Rite I, I must admit that repentance is thoroughly unpopular. Although a few of us pine for the good old days, I’m more often met with eye-rolls and silly little coughing fits each week when we say the Prayer of Humble Access at the 8:00 service. “That’s not the future of the church,” some like to argue. “In a world that values individual accomplishment and eschews any sign of weakness, why would people be attracted to a church in which the whole congregation kneels whenever they pray?” Why, indeed?

John the Baptist wasn’t fashionable either. The camel hair he wore wasn’t bought at Nordstrom’s, and the locusts and wild honey he ate weren’t part of a Paleo Diet. He was straight-up weird. And still the people flocked to see him. “Repent,” he cried out, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Why would anyone bother to come all of the way out of the city to see and hear that? Because, despite what the fire-and-brimstone preachers we’re used to would have us think, repentance isn’t about feeling sorry for ourselves; it’s about discovering that we, too, belong to God. Those who wag their fingers and shake their Bibles at the world have hijacked repentance, and I think it’s time for us to take it back. As we read in this gospel lesson, repentance is the path that leads to Jesus—the path that lead us to what God is doing in the world.

There were two kinds of people that went out to see John the Baptist: the crowds of ordinary Jews, who went out to confess their sins and be baptized in the River Jordan, and the Pharisees and Sadducees, who went out to see what the big fuss was all about. Which one are you? The first group heard the message of repentance as an opportunity to start over, to begin again, to turn over a new leaf. They weren’t on the inside track. They didn’t have a reserved seat in the synagogue. The rabbi didn’t come to eat at their house. But John offered them a place in God’s kingdom. He was the only one who was inviting them to take part in what God was doing in the world—the upside-down, topsy-turvy redemption of the world that God was unfolding all around them. John was the first one who had ever told them that even ordinary people like them could receive the fire of the Holy Spirit, and he showed them that the way they could receive it and join in what God was doing in the world was through repentance.

But the Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t need that invitation—at least they didn’t think that they did. They already had a reserved seat. They already had a place at God’s table—a table that was set specifically for religious elites like them. No, they weren’t perfect, but, in the eyes of their society, they were pretty close to it. If God was going to do anything special in the world, it was assumed that God would ask them first. They were the keepers of the religion—the ones whose status in the eyes of the people mirrored their status in the eyes of God: preferred, elite, and powerful. They didn’t need John the Baptist’s invitation to be a part of God’s movement. If anything, he needed their permission in order to talk about it, but he wasn’t interested in what they had to say.

So which one are you? Are you the kind of person who needs to turn around and start all over before you can be a part of God’s counter-cultural kingdom, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first? Or are you the kind of person whom everyone presumes already has a first-row seat? Perhaps it’s easier to think of it this way: what sort of messiah are you waiting to meet—one who establishes God’s reign by turning the whole world upside-down, or one who comes and builds a kingdom that looks like all of the other kingdoms of the world, where the people who already have access get the best seats, where the rich and powerful make all the rules, and where the poor and oppressed are an afterthought? Because I can tell you what sort of kingdom God has in mind. The prophets have proclaimed loudly and clearly what sort of victory God’s anointed will achieve. And this morning John the Baptist invites us to see that the only way we can be a part of that kingdom is by turning around and giving up on the ways of the world and embracing the way God wants the world to be.

There’s a reason that more and more young people are being attracted to old-time religion. There’s a reason that Rite I is being received by many as a breath of fresh air. And it’s not because people want to be miserable. It’s because people want to know that there is something worth holding onto other than the rat race that says that only the strong survive, that only the powerful will thrive, that only the dominant will rise to the top. That’s the way the world works. That’s the way we are programmed to work. But that’s not how God’s kingdom works. It’s not simply Rite I, of course. It’s more than that. It’s about making a break with the ways of the world and clinging to the hope that God himself has given us. That’s repentance: not misery and sorrow but a turning around in order to see real hope.

Jesus came and lived and died a shameful death because in God’s kingdom weakness is made strong, poverty is the path to true riches, and defeat is the gate that leads to victory. The empty tomb shows us that death in this world leads to life in the next. That’s how God’s kingdom works, and, if we want to be a part of that, we must repent. We must change course. We must turn around and look for a new way—God’s way.

Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The great and wonderful thing that God is doing in the world is right here among is. It is manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. It is real to those who walk the path behind the crucified one. But we cannot meet him—we cannot be a part of his movement—if we are clinging to the ways of the world. We must let them go. We must repent. We must discover that we have a place in God’s kingdom—a place reserved just for us. And if we are going to get to that place—if we are going to see Jesus—then we must we turn around and embrace the life God has in store for us. We must bear fruit worthy of the kingdom—worthy of repentance. We must turn to God and live.

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